Doukhobors in Canada: is there a need for modernization to preserve the community?

Violetta Kryak, Are Doukhobors dying out? In rural B.C., a sect tries to stop their faith from fading away, The Globe and Mail, September 9, 2018, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/british-columbia/article-are-doukhobors-dying-out-in-rural-bc-a-sect-tries-to-stop-their/, (accessed September 11, 2018)

As part of Langara College’s Read-Mercer scholarship, Russian-speaking journalist Violetta Kryak reports a story about modern challenges of a broader Doukhobor community by the example of B.C. The author depicts the history of Tsarist persecutions against the Doukhobors in Russia in the late 19thcentury and their resettlement in Canada at the beginning of the 20thcentury. She even touches upon the fact that Doukhobor children, whose parents belonged to the radical Doukhobor wing called Sons of Freedom, were seized from their parents and forced into residential schools in the 1950s. But on the whole, the Doukhobors’ life in Canada in general and in B.C., in particular, has been easy so far. Their community has been able to practice their faith – a form of Christianity – freely; to preserve their language, traditions and lifestyle. Meanwhile, the article reveals a decrease in a number of people self-identifying themselves as Doukhobors. “While there are an estimated 65,000 people of Doukhobor descent living in Canada today, only 2,290 listed Doukhobor as their religion in the 2011 Census,” writes Violetta Kryak. In order to save the community, the entire workshop on how to keep youth in the existing Doukhobor villages in B.C. and how to reconnect those who had already left was held in May 2018. But how really unique is this situation with the Doukhobors?

The Globe and Mail journalist obviously knows the topic from within, although it would be interesting to put this question in a far-reaching context. It has been more than a century since more than 5,000 Doukhobors, out of approximately 9,000 immigrated to Canada in total, resettled in B.C. Several generations alternated. Each Doukhobor mentioned in the article has a non-Russian name. The traditional Russian ending “ov” in their last names was replaced by “off.” Some of them don’t speak Russian which didn’t fully allow them to immerse in the culture and the faith. And all the interviewed people mentioned the importance of the language. An enormous number of mixed marriages must have happened, and it also washed out the culture.

But was it even possible to preserve everything untouched? In many ways, immigration to Canada exposed this group to a different culture, language and way of life. It is natural that with every new generation this exposure extends. Especially today, when the world feels global, it is hard to maintain an isolated life.

And is it even necessary? Canada’s commitment to multiculturalism encourages small ethnic groups and religious communities to manifest their characteristic features. The article confirms that Doukhobor settlements around Castlegar B.C. are “reminiscent of Russian villages” with “an old Russian look inside” their houses. But multiculturalism is based on integration, i.e. acceptance and involvement into a Canadian culture. It won’t happen if someone leads a quiet isolated life.

At the same time, it should be fully appreciated that the Canadian Doukhobors are the main bearers of this cult. The number of people identifying themselves as Doukhobors in Russia is just around 50. Up to 700 followers still live in Georgia. Plus, individuals migrated somewhere else. In 1999, there was also an information about 5,000 Doukhobors living in the U.S.A. along the U.S.-Canada border. However, it is hard to count on this source without further research as it is almost 20 years old.

In that way, the future of the community definitely should be defined nowhere else but in Canada, with the only question in place is whether it is possible to reconnect people artificially. And it is not about doubting potential solutions offered at the above-mentioned workshops, like developing economic opportunities in the communities or creating an online platform to connect Doukhobors across the country. They actually seem reasonable if one may judge. But here comes this broader context of spirituality nowadays, with a growing number of non-believers rising across the province and beyond. And in this case, the situation is not one-of-a-kind for Doukhobors. Various religious organizations conduct the same kind of events, brainstorming on how to attract their followers back to their communities. So, Doukhobors are not alone in their efforts, with the only exception being the existing low number of believers across the globe.

Despite some unverified data on an actual total of Doukhobors in Canada, Violetta Kryak uncurtains the very unique Russian ethnoreligious tradition which owes Canada its existence. Today, this existence is questioned. And The Globe and Mail article is definitely worth reading to get a sense of what it is all about.

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